Family tends to stand as the primary agent of socialization, as it is the family that has the first opportunity to influence a child in the socialization process before other agents, such as media and peer groups, enter the process. It is, therefore, the family that has an initial influence on a child’s gender and sexual expectations. Furthermore, the family is tasked by others in the manner they socialize their children in response to traditional gender and sexual normativity.
A recent study published in Sexualities draws a comparison between the sexual and gender expectations for children held by biological parents and stepparents. In order to explore their argument that stepfamilies may be more conducive to creating opportunities for children to experience a less gender- and sexuality-constrained household, Stacey and Padavic (2021) interviewed a small sample of parents consisting of 20 biological parents and/or stepparents of a total of 61 children regarding the gender and sexuality expectations of the household. The authors concluded that fewer constrictions in gender and sexuality expectations existed in stepfamilies than in families composed of two biological parents. As in cases of families headed by gay or lesbian couples, stepfamilies were less likely to promote or enforce gender or sexuality conformity. The authors attribute this finding to two reasons: First, stepparents tend to be less committed to a stepchild’s development than biological parents, and second, stepparents tend to not to be held as accountable for the outcome of a child’s development than biological parents.
In interviews with biological parents, guidelines for their children’s development usually followed traditional scripts. Most participants in the biological group believed that they were held accountable for their children’s conformity to social expectations of gender and sexuality. The biological parents in the study expressed happiness when gender and sexuality norms were maintained. Despite acknowledging that they would accept their children regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientations, many of the biological parents in the study voiced dislike, displeasure, or disappointment at the idea of their children veering from traditional gender and sexual norms. The primary reason given for their wish for conformity was that of concern for perceived struggles their children may face in light of their nonconformity. Girls in homes with biological parents were found to have more flexibility in their adherence to gender or sexuality norms than boys. Despite the slight flexibility awarded girls, the biological parents remained directed toward constraining sexuality and what West and Zimmerman (1987) referred to as doing gender, or “creating differences between girls and boys and women and men, differences that are not natural, essential, or biological."
Contrary to the biological parents in the study, stepparents had an indifference to the gender and sexuality expectations of their stepchildren. Stepparents did not express disapproval at the idea of their stepchildren not conforming to normative gender or sexual behaviors. Intense feelings about outcomes of gender and sexuality in children were expressed by biological parents, not the stepparents in the study. Furthermore, stepparents did not feel as though the gender and sexual orientation of their stepchildren reflected on their parenting. The attitudes held by stepparents were based on less emotional investment in the raising of the children and lack of personal accountability with gender and sexual outcomes.
The researchers note that the social implications of their findings involve the continuation of the socialization process. Children in households that maintain traditional gender and sexuality norms may preserve those traditional scripts when raising their own children. Children in alternative family systems, such as stepfamilies, may be more likely to relax or eliminate the traditional scripts with their own children. By distancing themselves from the socialization process, the stepparent, in effect, produces a positive leniency in the child’s gender and sexual autonomy. According to the researchers, “As more children are raised in families that question the given order, they themselves will one day form families likely to do the same. Over time, these personal challenges to the set-in-stone quality of traditional gender and sexuality practices help loosen the hegemonic hold of the entire system” (2021:205).
The subject matter in the Stacey and Padavic study has been previously unexplored. With the limitations of the small sample size in the study, more research on the topic is necessary in order to expand the psychological and behavioral dynamics in the gender and sexuality socialization process in both alternative and traditional family systems. Worry may remain a constant with biological parents of nonconforming children: Parents do tend to worry about their children on a vast spectrum of issues. However, a larger sample size may reveal more biological parents who do not adhere so strictly to gender and sexual expectations, and fully accept their children for who they are and who they want to be. Further analysis of dynamics in stepfamily households surrounding issues of gender and sexual socialization, in which the stepparents are not emotionally distanced from the socialization process and take an integral and forefront role in raising the children is necessary. The Stacey and Padavic study merely opens the door to greater research potential.
Stacey, Lawrence and Irene Padavic. 2021. “Complicating Parents’ Gender and Sexual Expectations for Children: A Comparison of Biological Parents and Stepparents” in Sexualities 24(1-2): 191-207.
West, Candace and Don H. Zimmerman. 1987. “Doing Gender” in Gender and Society 1(2): 125-151.